Sara James Tarses was born in Pittsburgh on March 16, 1964 to Jay and Rachel (Newdell) Tarses. The family moved to suburban Los Angeles, where her father became a successful sitcom writer (first on “The Bob Newhart Show”).
Ms. Tarses attended Williams College in Massachusetts, studying play structure and receiving a theater degree in 1985. She was a production assistant on “Saturday Night Live” in New York for a season before returning to Los Angeles in 1986 to become a casting director for Lorimar Productions. She joined NBC in 1987 in the “current” comedy programming division (shows already on the air), where she monitored scripts for shows like “Cheers” and “A Different World,” starring Lisa Bonet.
Brandon Tartikoff, NBC’s much-admired entertainment chief, became her mentor. He swiftly promoted Ms. Tarses to the network’s comedy development department, where she worked on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” which turned Will Smith into a household name; the oddball “Wings,” set at a New England airport; and “Blossom,” centered on a teenage Mayim Bialik.
Ms. Tarses’s departure from NBC was ugly.
Michael Ovitz, the polarizing former power agent, had become Disney’s president. He began talking to Ms. Tarses about taking over ABC. But she was under contract at NBC. Gossip swirled in Hollywood that she solved the problem by claiming that she had been sexually harassed by Don Ohlmeyer, a senior NBC executive. (Mr. Ohlmeyer blamed Mr. Ovitz for the rumor and publicly called him “the Antichrist,” leading to a media frenzy.) Ms. Tarses and NBC denied the story, as did Mr. Ovitz, but it continued to hound her, making the young Ms. Tarses appear as someone “who would do anything to get ahead,” as Ms. Hirschberg wrote.
When she arrived at ABC in the spring of 1996, Ms. Tarses was the second-youngest person ever to be the lead programmer of a network. (Mr. Tartikoff was 31 when he took over at NBC.) Her age, along with her status as the first woman to have that prestigious job, resulted in an unusual amount of scrutiny, often negative. Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, referred to her as “Minnie Mouse” in one article and “scarily ruthless” in another.
Karey Burke, who ran ABC from 2018 to 2020 and is now president of 20th Television, a leading TV studio, said of Ms. Tarses in a statement: “She shattered stereotypes and ideas about what a female executive could achieve, and paved the way for others, at a cost to herself.”
After quitting ABC in 1999, Ms. Tarses avoided the spotlight and remade herself as a producer. Several television pilots failed, but she ultimately found a few modest hits, including “My Boys,” a comedy created by Ms. Thomas and centered on a female sportswriter, and “Happy Endings,” a sitcom that dusted off the “Friends” formula.